Coles County Yard and Garden

Coles County Yard and Garden

10 Steps to Great Flower Borders

This column was written by Kathy Hummel, Coles County Master Gardener.

We've all driven by a house or leafed through a magazine and breathed a WOW at landscaping which made our heart skip a beat. What is it that takes a garden out of the realm of ordinary into the WOW category? Here are some guidelines to consider.

Good gardens, like great interior designs must follow a basic set of principles, but the really exceptional spaces are those that reflect the unique character and spirit of the homeowners themselves. Start a palette with a single color and grow it out of that color family. Be fearless in selecting plants combinations that catch your eye and make your heart beat a little faster.

Build combinations against a backdrop. Use a blank wall, such as the side of a house, garage or tool shed as the canvas upon which to display groups of plants. A hedge, wall or fence can provide an effective contrast to the shapes, color and textures of the plants. A backdrop also offers the chance to garden on the vertical with one of the many varieties of flowering vines. If the light and conditions are right, go for an arbor or trellis with a climbing rose. You can't go wrong with such a classic beauty. With the background in place, 80% of the work is done.

Choose plants for year round interest. When faced with filling a large border, try to mix in groupings of evergreens, shrubs and grasses to give the garden year round interest. These seasonal sentinels are always there to provide structure and interest, so your garden doesn't disappear from view when winter arrives. A formula to keep in mind: if one quarter of the border plants maintain their form year round, your garden will have structure and interest even in colder months.

With these plants in place, fill in with groupings of long blooming perennials and annuals to add color and texture for months at a time. Finally, add pockets of seasonal bloomers such as daffodils, lilies and chrysanthemums to keep the borders fresh and dynamic.

A well-designed border is like a symphony with each plant carrying its own part of the arrangement at various times, but something is always there to keep the music going. Asters, goldenrod, ornamental grasses and salvias begin to flower in late summer and carry the garden through the fall to the first frost. These late bloomers peppered through the beds give the border a lift right when the summer flowers are beginning to look a little tired.

Blend house and garden styles. Gardens look best when they appear as natural extensions of your home's architecture. For example, if you have a cottage style home, express the garden's motif with plants that echo that theme. Flower borders with a casual, informal look that lean on old-fashioned plants and are arranged in a random and loose manner complement this style. In a cottage garden, mix varieties of heritage shrub roses with old-fashioned snowball viburnums, foxgloves and tulips.

Plant in multiples. For strong visual impact, use the same varieties in large groupings. Plant in combinations of 3, 5 or 7. For instance, instead of using five phlox, each a different color, plant a large group of the same phlox to build volume and mass in a border. Then accent the plantings with more short-lived or ephemeral beauties. By building the big elements with dependable plants, the others can be more experimental. Repeat units of colors and forms. If you are faced with the challenge of planting a long flowerbed, the secret is to find a successful combination of plants and repeat the grouping throughout the border. This creates a pleasing rhythm or visual cadence that establishes a sense of order. To do this, create a small vignette of plants made up of 3 or 5 varieties, and then repeat the combination at regular intervals along the length of the bed. Containers are also great way to create rhythm.

Embrace contrast. Select combinations of plants that have not only contrasting color, but various forms and textures. By choosing plants with contrast, the interest of each grouping is heightened. While your first instinct may be to use plants with different colors, texture is one of the most effective tools in design. For instance, placing soft fuzzy leafed plants such as lamb's ear next to glossy, needlepoint holly creates an intriguing combination.

Create plant combinations for a year-round interest. Design your borders so they will evolve through time with seasonal color. Spring flowering bulbs offer that first flush of color and give way to summer perennials and annuals followed by fall flowering favorites.

Experiment and have fun. For a fun fall border try combining kale, chrysanthemums and ornamental peppers. While some formal garden settings demand a rigid and ordered style, bend a few rules and try some surprising combinations. Instead of confining the lettuce, peppers and herbs to the vegetable garden, mix them in with roses and irises. This anything-goes-approach can yield some dramatic and exciting combinations. Try adding tropicals and houseplants to your flower borders and see what happens.

Another interesting visual effect is to design a semi-transparent screen of taller plants, creating a wispy veil to look through to see the flowers and foliage beyond. Ornamental grasses, guara and Russian sage can be used in this way.

No-Fail Border Combinations:

Good Contrast – Phlox next to ornamental grass

Good Texture – Lacey fern next to a bold hosta

Good Color Contrast – Purple and orange make an electrifying couple

Play-it-Safe Color Tip:

Use lots of gray-green foliage to harmonize unrelated colors.

Thanks to P. Allen Smith for the great ideas for this column.

Upcoming Master Gardener presentations at the Lawn and Garden Show at the Cross County Mall -- Saturday, March 17, 11 am – "Body Smart Gardening". Sunday 1 pm – "Seven Reasons to Use Native Plants in Your Landscaping"

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